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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part II.—Inhabitants of Gairloch

Chapter III.—Polity and Customs


NOTWITHSTANDING the introduction of Christianity in the seventh century, the revival of religion at the time of the Reformation, and later on the militant piety of the stern Covenanters, the people of Gairloch did not make much progress until their previously continuous state of warfare came to an end after the "Forty-five." The abandonment of the clan system, the disarming of the Highlanders, and the proscription of their distinctive dress, entirely changed the condition of the people, and nearly assimilated them to their lowland neighbours as regarded many of the outer circumstances of daily life. The lover of romance may pardonably raise sentimental objections to the change, but it unquestionably heralded a vast improvement in the general condition of the Highland population.

The report in the Old Statistical Account (Appendix C) on the state of Gairloch in 1792 contrasts very favourably with what is known of its condition prior to the " Forty-five." The first parochial school appears to have been established in Gairloch about 1730, and in 1792 there was still only the one school; it was well into the nineteenth century before the number of schools was increased. During the minority of the present baronet the number grew, mostly at his expense, to sixteen. As elsewhere education was formerly in the hands of the ecclesiastics, but it was as a rule only to the higher classes that they imparted instruction in the old days, feven the parochial school was up to the passing of the present Education Act (1872) visited and examined by the presbytery.

Few of the people could read or write until quite recently. On 6th March 1811 the Rev. James Russell, minister of Gairloch, reported " the number of persons capable of reading English in the parish to be three hundred and twenty-four; capable of reading Gaelic alone, seventy-two; and unable to read either English or Gaelic, two thousand five hundred and forty-nine." In the present day, under the School Board system, established in 1873, education has reached a high pitch. The teachers in the ten and a half schools of the parish pass at the annual examinations by Her Majesty's inspectors about eighty per cent, of their scholars, and it would surprise a stranger to witness the general intelligence and acquirements of the school children. There are still a number of elderly people in the parish who can neither read nor write, but the rising generation are well educated.

Under the old clan system there was no organized method of relieving the poor; indeed it is certain that the mass of the population was then in miserable plight. With the progress of the church a system of relieving paupers sprang up. Under the ministry of the Rev. D. Mackintosh, the poor, to the number of eighty-four, had the; annual collections made in the church, with the interest of £20, distributed among them. The collections averaged £6, 7s. This mode of assisting the poor continued until the introduction of the present poor-law system, which is very thoroughly applied to the parish. Only one remark need here be made about it. It is, that though begging is almost unknown, and though the people have a large measure of Highland pride, they are as a rule callous to the humiliation of receiving relief from the poor-rates ; nay rather, some few even appear to think that they have a positive right to draw parish pay, irrespective of the state of their purses.

The very few beggars seen in Gairloch are generally lowland tramps of the drinking class. The travelling tinkers rarely beg; they pitch their rude tents in sheltered places, and repair the tin pans of the neighbourhood. Some few tinkers are well known, and are considered respectable; others are not to be trusted. Gipsies are scarcely ever seen so far north. There is a strange old man often to be noticed wandering about Gairloch. He is a native of the parish, but is now homeless and in his dotage. He goes about seeking, as he says, the road to America. It seems that many a year ago he emigrated with his wife and family to the United States. They all became more or less insane, and all died except the father, this poor old man. He returned to Scotland, and now divides his time among those who are kind to him,—and they are not a few. Barring his absorbing anxiety he does not appear to be unhappy. He always wears a tall hat, and is respectably dressed. Her Majesty Queen Victoria mentions this old man in "More leaves from the Journal of a Life in the Highlands." Describing the excursion to Torridon, Her Majesty #writes, a An old man, very tottery, passed where I was sketching, and I asked the Duchess of Roxburghe to speak to him; he seemed strange, said he had come from America, and was going to England, and thought Torridon very ugly."

Among old customs still remaining in Gairloch are those connected with marriages and funerals, and the New Year, which is the only festival observed in the parish.

The marriage customs are a relic of the remote past. THey consist of the washing of the feet of the bride and bridegroom at their respective homes on the evening before the wedding, and the putting to bed of the married couple on the night of the ceremony. Captain Burt notices these customs in 1730. Some of the younger people shirk these proceedings, especially in the more accessible parts of the parish, but as a rule they are strictly observed to the present day.

Funerals are not now accompanied by such striking peculiarities. Until the last few years, when a death occurred all the people of the township ceased working until after the funeral, which was attended by every adult male. Of course drinking was much in vogue, and the well known Irish wakes were closely imitated. Now, only those invited to a funeral are expected to attend, and the whisky is confined to the serving of a dram all round (preceded by a prayer) before the funeral procession starts, with additional "nips" whenever a halt is made for rest on the way to the place of burial, and these halts are not infrequent. Until quite lately it was customary for each man accompanying the funeral to throw a stone on the spot where the coffin was placed when a halt was made, thus forming a considerable heap; sometimes the number of stones thrown was the same as the years of age of the deceased. This custom has been generally discontinued in Gairloch since the roads were made, though it is still in vogue in the wilder parts of the adjoining parishes of Applecross and Lochbroom. The use of whisky at funerals is not now universal in the parish of Gairloch; some ministers wisely discourage it, partly on account of its generally evil tendency, and partly because the providing of it is a serious burden on the family of the deceased, already weighted by other expenses in connection with the death or previous sickness.

New Year's eve and New Year's day are kept according to the old style, on the 12th and 13th of January, and both days are general holidays. There is always a keen contest for the "first-footing" at midnight on New Year's eve; the one who succeeds in first entering a neighbour's house claims the inevitable dram. Occasionally a shinty or "clubbing "match takes place on New Year's day.

Some old weights and measures are still adhered to; milk is sold by the pint, which is half a gallon.

The administration of justice in Gairloch is in the present day conducted as in other parts of the country, by the sheriff and justices of the peace; but until the time of Sir Hector Mackenzie, the eleventh laird of Gairloch, they say justice was administered by the chief in a rough and ready fashion. In the paddock below Flowerdale House, immediately adjoining on the east the field in which the Tigh Dige formerly stood, is a small round plantation on a circular plot of land, which deserves its title—the island—as it is surrounded by a wet ditch; it is shown on the six-inch ordnance map. It was formerly quite an island, and was approached by a plank or small foot-bridge. Simon Chisholm, the present forester and head-gardener at Flowerdale, remembers when there were the large stumps of five forest trees on this little island, one in the centre and the other four around it. In the line of the hedge which divides this paddock from the field to the west were several other large trees, some of the stumps of which remain to this day. When a trial was to take place the laird of Gairloch stood at the large tree in the centre of the "Island of justice," and one of the principal clansmen at each of the other four trees. These four men acted as jurymen or assessors, whilst the laird himself performed the functions of judge. The accused person was placed at a large tree immediately facing the island, and within forty yards of it, whilst the accuser or pursuer and the witnesses stood at other trees. When the accused was found guilty of a capital crime, the sentence of death was executed at the place still called Cnoc a croiche, or "Gallows hill," about half a mile distant from the island of justice. The Gallows hill is a small knowe close below the high road, on the south side of the ridge called the Crasg, between the present Gairloch Free church and the old Gairloch churchyard, and it overlooks the latter. A few stones still shew that there used to be a wall which formed a small platform on which the gallows stood; they say this wall was more complete within living memory than it now is. The ravine or fissure immediately below the platform provided an effectual "drop." When the body was cut down it would fall to the sea-shore below, and perhaps at high tide into the sea itself. The face of the sloping rock, immediately below the platform where the gallows stood, looks almost as if it had been worn smooth by the number of bodies of executed criminals dashed against it in their fall. This old manner of trial is said to have continued until the eighteenth century. But it must not be supposed that Sir Hector Mackenzie, who regularly dispensed justice among his Gairloch people from 1770 to 1826, adhered to the primitive form.

Folk-lore is little thought of now-a-days in Gairloch. Among the old men who still love it, and from whom many of the traditions and stories given in this book have been derived, are James Mackenzie of Kirkton, Kenneth Fraser of Leac-nan-Saighead, Roderick Mackenzie of Lonmor (Ruaridh-an-Torra), George Maclennan of Londubh, Alexander Maclennan of Poolewe, John M'Lean of Strath, Kenneth and George Maclennan of Tollie Croft, Donald Ross of Kenlochewe, and Simon Chisholm of Flowerdale. Some of them can speak English fluently.


 


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